I think the last time I saw The Skull it was it was a late night movie shown after ITV’s News at Ten back in about 1974. What’s more it was on a tiny a black and white portable telly. It still scared the crap out of me as an impressionable teen, so you can imagine how excited I was to discover that the Amicus classic was being reissued in a lovely dual format DVD/Bluray combo from Eureka Video.
Peter Cushing heads up a solid British cast as Dr Christopher Maitland, a collector of occult artefacts, who is offered the chance to acquire skull of the legendary Marquis de Sade. Despite being warned off by fellow collector Sir Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee) Maitland cannot resist and soon falls foul of the skull’s evil influence.
Following the success of their first portmanteau chiller Dr Terror’s House of Horrors in 1964, Hammer competitor Amicus had been busy looking for more Horror properties to film. Since Hammer had cornered the market in the Gothic costume drama, Amicus producer Milton Subotsky delved into the world of pulp magazines and pulled our Robert Bloch’s short story The Skull of the Marquis de Sade. Bloch already had a solid horror reputation having penned the novel that Hitchcock’s Psycho was based upon,
Although Bloch did go on later to script films like Torture Garden, Asylum and The House That Dripped Blood for Amicus, to keep the budget down Subotsky decided to write the script himself and dashed out the screenplay for The Skull together with that of I Monster (to be filmed in 1971) in five days. This clearly showed in the script delivered to director Freddie Francis (Paranoiac, Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, The Evil of Frankenstein) who complained about the screenplays brevity, however it did inspire Francis’ creativity as a director and Oscar-winning cinematographer to pad the film out to a full feature-length with a prolonged almost dialogue free sequence, where the skull pursues the terrorised Maitland around his apartment.
Francis hit upon the idea of filming much of Maitland’s pursuit from the skull’s point of view by the simple expedient of shooting through a template cut to look as if we are seeing out through the skull’s eyes. Having only ever seen the film on an ancient TV set in the past the wide-screen remaster on the DVD/Bluray is a real revelation of the impact this must have had upon the cinema audience in the 1960s, As you would expect from Francis the cinematography is quite beautiful and combined with top-level performances by Cushing and Lee as part of a classy British cast, also featuring: Michael Gough, Patrick Wymark, Jill Bennett, Nigel Green and Patrick Magee, extravagant set dressing, and an interesting score by avant-garde composer Elisabeth Lutyens, the finished movie overcomes the shortcomings of the script and the fact that you can often see the supporting wires as the skull levitates around Maitland’s rooms.
A British horror classic I give The Skull a 666/666
The Skull is released as a duel format DVD/Bluray on 26 October in the UK
Extras include fascinating interviews with film historian Jonathan Rigby and Hothouse pal Kim Newman.
Trivia: Maitland was pet name of Subotsky’s which turns up attached to characters in later Amicus productions such as Tales from he Crypt, Vault of Horror and And Now the Screaming Starts
In real life the Marquis de Sade’s corpse was exhumed from the cemetery at Charenton lunatic asylum, where he died in 1814, so that his skull could be subjected to a phrenological examination. It was subsequently lost which may have inspired Bloch’s story.